China at the Cairo Conference: Seventy Years Later

When Chiang met Churchill and FDR—and why Stalin stayed home.

Next month will mark China’s seventieth anniversary of its first entrance into the era of World War II conferences. Even though there may not be any fanfare or events in China commemorating this, the effects of the Cairo Conference linger to this day. Cairo remains synonymous with other famous conferences enshrined in history by their geographical location: Quebec, Tehran, Casablanca, Yalta, Bretton Woods and Potsdam.

Sextant

Codenamed Sextant, the Cairo Conference was sponsored by the United States. It would be the first conference attended by the leaders of three principal Allied countries with a stake in the Asia-Pacific theater: Roosevelt for the United States, Churchill for the United Kingdom, and Chiang Kai-shek for China. However, Stalin would sit out this conference. Through his extensive network of diplomats, confidants and informants, Chiang would learn from the U.S. ambassador in Moscow, William Harriman, that Stalin would neither attend a conference if Chinese leadership was present nor discuss China during the informal sessions with other participants for fear of a Japanese military reprisal against the USSR. Unfortunately, this would remain the USSR’s stance throughout most of the remaining war conferences until the very end of the war.

Additionally, Stalin had concluded a Non-Aggression Pact on April 13, 1941 with Japan, thereby freeing up Soviet forces to focus strategically on a one-front war. On the same day, the two countries also signed a declaration regarding Manchuria and Mongolia. The main thrust of this declaration guaranteed the territorial integrity and inviolability of Japan’s stake in Manchuria while Japan would “respect the territorial integrity and inviolability” of Mongolia.

Despite the absence of Stalin, the other participants illuminated three main points via a public radio address in the December 1, 1943 Cairo Communiqué. First, Japanese aggression would be restrained and punished. Second, the seized and occupied territories to include Formosa, Manchuria, and the Pescadores would be returned to China. Finally, the eventual independence of Korea would be pursued.

The Road from Cairo to Yalta

Despite its initial participation at Cairo, China would be shunned from many of the other conferences including the last major war conference: Yalta. The Yalta Conference holds a particularly important place in history because it set in place the post-war realignment. While the Yalta Conference was being concluded in February 1945, Chiang would quickly learn from his sources that he had been squeezed out of postwar concessions by the Big Three(Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin) even though China had borne a significant share of Japanese aggression. Specifically, China was coerced by a secret agreement reached at Yalta that ceded Soviet concessions in Manchuria as well as recognition of Mongolian independence. With no international assistance, Chiang was forced to negotiate with Stalin alone a few months later. The Manchurian sphere would harm Chiang in the future. The safety and security of a Manchurian Soviet sphere would provide Mao Zedong and his Chinese Communist Party forces a chance to lick their wounds, train and rearm. It would only be a year or so before Mao and his forces would leave Manchuria to begin their successful takeover of the Chinese mainland.

Cairo’s Aftermath

China’s presence at Cairo was a watershed event. In retrospect, the three main objectives manifested in the Communiqué continue to haunt China and the international community. There still remains bad blood between Japan and its neighbors concerning the war; territorial disputes persist between the ROC and PRC, and the Korean peninsula remains divided. Yet, Cairo offers an excellent opportunity to reflect on Chinese participation, sacrifice and efforts not just in Cairo, but also during the whole World War II effort.

Wilson VornDick is a lieutenant commander in the U.S. Navy, where he is assigned to the Pentagon. Previously, he worked at the Chinese Maritime Studies Institute at the U.S. Naval War College. This piece reflects the author’s opinions, not the official assessments of the U.S. Navy or any other government entity.